Dr. Frank Mitloehner, a professor and air quality extension specialist at the University of California – Davis, spoke about the relationship between agriculture and climate change at the 2019 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit, held Feb. 5-6 in Lancaster.
What are the facts?
Mitloehner said skewed figures portrayed in “Livestock’s Long Shadow” have been employed to demonize animal agriculture. Meanwhile, other industries – particularly those using fossil fuel, such as transportation and power production – are significantly more harmful to the climate nationally and globally. In fact, these sectors are “the largest anthropogenic contributors of greenhouse gasses [GHG], which are believed to drive climate change,” he said.
The burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and other industrial activities are hugely responsible for increased carbon dioxide, or CO2, levels, which cause the earth’s surface to warm. Opponents to animal agriculture are blaming cattle and their releases of another GHG, methane. Though the global warming potential (GWP) of methane is greater than that of CO2 (28-to-1), these critics fail to mention that CO2 accumulates over time (1,000-year lifespan), while methane is a short-lived climate pollutant that is destroyed after one decade.
Anti-animal agriculture groups are endorsing campaigns like “Meatless Mondays” to reduce the consumption of meat and dairy, labeling this as part of the solution to global warming. However, “when divorcing political fiction from scientific facts around the quantification of GHG from all sectors of society, one finds a different picture,” Mitloehner said.
Mitloehner’s slideshow illustrated the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) projections for GHG emissions by industry sectors. One chart showed the following GHG emission percentages:
- Energy production: 31 percent
- Transportation: 27 percent
- Livestock: 3.9 percent
- Other: 37.8 percent
So according to the calculations by leading scientists and the EPA, U.S. livestock production accounts for 3.9 percent of all GHG emissions, which is a far cry from the 18 to 51 percent range that the anti-agriculture assemblies assert for the U.S.
Knowing this, the U.S. having a “Beefless Monday” per week would reduce total GHG emissions by 0.3 percent annually.
Another slide showed the components of fluid milk, cheese and whey, and other dairy products, illustrating that the U.S. dairy carbon footprint is only about 2 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions.
Mitloehner explained the Food and Animal Organization of the United Nations (FAO) developed a benchmark, “gold standard” life cycle assessment for each livestock species, to help find a “sustainable, scientific path toward fulfilling the future global food demand.” However, they accounted for the entire livestock production process, “cradle to grave,” while only considering the transportation industry’s tailpipe emissions.
Although it’s right to acknowledge emissions from the livestock sector, Mitloehner said “to compare them to the main emission sources would put us on a wrong path to solutions – namely to significantly reduce our anthropogenic carbon footprint to reduce climate change.”
Land usage, upcycling and efficiency
Mitloehner said many of the claims against animal agriculture use global percentages, not accounting for how advanced and prudent American agriculture is and continues to become. “The U.S. is the country with the relatively lowest carbon footprint per unit of livestock product produced,” he noted. In fact, though there were 16 million fewer cows in 2018 than in 1950 (25 million then and 9 million now), milk production nationally has increased 60 percent. The carbon footprint of a glass of milk is two-thirds less than it was 70 years ago. Mitloehner attributed this efficiency to improvements in fertility, health and genetics.
“Production efficiency is a critical factor in sustainable animal protein production, and it varies drastically by region,” he said. More improvements in livestock production efficiencies means less GHG and less environmental detriment.
Mitloehner referenced the 2050 challenge of feeding the globe, stating that throughout our lifetime the global human population will have tripled from 3 billion to greater than 9 billion people. And since there are fewer natural resources (land, water and minerals, meaning fertilizer), global agricultural efficiency must improve.
Other graphs showed the global distribution of livestock and cropland. While ag critics make claims about how much land is used for livestock and animal production, they don’t account for how little of the earth is actually farmable – and how efficiently agriculturalists utilize it. Only one-quarter of Earth is land, and even less is arable land.
Another farming advantage that isn’t recognized by ag critics is that farmers upcycle, by feeding to ruminants byproducts that humans don’t or can’t eat.
He also said in the U.S. there are 9 million dairy cows, 9.5 million horses and 170 million dogs and cats, which helps put productivity into perspective.
What can we do?
Extremist vegans haven’t taken over the world yet. Mitloehner said when he surveys his classes at UC Davis, about 10 percent of 20-year-olds are vegans, but 80 percent of them are vegan for only one year. He said, “It’s totally their decision [to be vegan], but it should be based on facts.”
Mitloehner said we can’t afford to keep quiet. Due to differences in ideologies, the anti-animal ag parties are ferocious in their attacks: shouting, posting, sharing, protesting and otherwise advertising that animal agriculture is “inhumane, dirty and bad for the environment,” he said. It is crucial to vocalize the story of animal agriculture and the truth.
“It is your legacy that’s under fire,” he said. “These groups are in full swing, guns blazing, and you [as agriculturalists] are just waking up to it.”
Farmers must use language consumers understand to communicate the message clearly. “We have a great opportunity, as this is the first time that groups of people are hugely interested in where their food comes from,” Mitloehner said. Farmers should encourage their network to buy real food and assure them that all food – with or without “certified this or that” labels – is safe, healthy and ethically and sustainably produced.
During the Q&A, numerous “agvocating” ideas were shared, including engaging in informative, transparent, respectful conversations at the grocery store and gas station; writing an article for a local paper; and providing farm tours.
“The public has lost its connection to where their food comes from. It is up to you as a farmer to reconnect those who produce everything we eat with those consuming. If you miss this opportunity, others will gladly step in for you,” Mitloehner said.
For more information about Mitloehner’s research, read the article “Facts and Fiction on Livestock and Climate Change.”
Laura Holtzinger is a freelance writer in Copake Falls, New York. She is also a co-owner of Linehan Jerseys.
PHOTO: An engaged crowd stayed to ask questions and learn more from Dr. Mitloehner following his presentation "Livestock and Climate Change: Fact or Faked?" at the 2019 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit, held Feb. 5-6 in Lancaster. Photo by Laura Holtzinger.